October 4 of ’70 was one of those bad days in rock and roll. I openly wept.
Janis was gone. Never would her gravely voice penetrate a microphone with the soul and passion only Janis could provide. Never before or since has there been someone to match her style and substance. She had the heart of a Delta blues singer and the voice of an angel with barbed-wire for vocal cords. She could take the stage and own it like no other. Her kick-ass vocals and stage presence were unlike anyone else in the business.
“When I sing, I feel like when you’re first in love. It’s more than sex. It’s that point two people can get to they call love, when you really touch someone for the first time, but it’s gigantic, multiplied by the whole audience. I feel chills.” – Janis Joplin
Born in 1943, Port Arthur, Texas, Janis Joplin grew up in a strict home guided by the teachings of the Church and a firm handed father, an engineer at Texaco. She went on to be somewhat of an outcast at Port Arthur High School where her classmates included actor G. W. Bailey and future Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson.
Joplin left Port Arthur in 1960 for a short stint at the University of Texas in Austin where she began cultivating her style and forging her personality as a white hippie blues singer. Her heroes and inspiration were blues greats such as Bessie Smith, Leadbelly, Odetta and Big Mama Thornton.
Disillusioned with Texas and her prospects for acceptance, Joplin fled to San Francisco in search of a freedom of expression nearly non-existent in Texas. She found like minded musical friends in the Haight-Ashbury district. People like future Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen recorded with Janis during her short stint in the district. (The Typewriter Tapes)
Joplin’s amphetamine abuse during this period caused great concern to her friends and under much urging from those who loved her she returned to Port Arthur to clean up her act and go back to school. She got one of those beehive hairdos and was merely a shadow of her California self.
Her clean time was short lived. An up and coming California rock band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, recruited her as their female lead. Joplin was 23 years-old and on the cusp of greatness. She returned to San Francisco and joined Big Brother in June of ’66. Within months she would return to her old Haight-Ashbury ways and go on the occasional alcohol binge.
Big Brother’s breakthrough appearance in June at the Monterey Pop Festival catapulted Joplin and the band onto the national stage. Her version of Big Mama Thornton’s Ball and Chain is an epic classic rock performance where those fortunate enough to hear up close were simply blown away.
Cheap Thrills, Joplin’s first major release launched on August 12, 1968, and shot straight to the top of the album charts within eight weeks and held the #1 spot for another four weeks. (Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland knocked Cheap Thrills from the top spot.)
Within weeks of charting Thrills Joplin announced her intention to leave Big Brother for a solo career. Her last gig with the band was at a Family Dog benefit on December 1, 1968. Big Brother guitarist Sam Andrew followed and joined Joplin in the Kozmic Blues Band.
Their summer 1969 tour included the Woodstock festival which was not a great performance for the singer. In her own words Joplin was – three sheets to the wind. After about nine months and one album together, I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, Sam Andrew returned to Big Brother -the Kozmic Blues were no more.
By this time Joplin was reportedly using a lot of heroin and becoming increasingly distant. In February of 1970 she took a geographical cure and fled to Brazil in an attempt to get off drugs and turn things around. She was accompanied by long time friend and wardrobe designer, Linda Gravenites. While there she met and had a short fling with American tourist, David (George) Niehaus. A Joplin biography written by her sister Laura said, “David was an upper-middle-class Cincinnati kid who had studied communications at Notre Dame… He tried law school, but when he met Janis he was taking time off.” Laura Joplin went on to say that Niehaus was good for Janis at this time because he didn’t do drugs and she was trying to stop using.
The Niehaus relationship quickly ran it’s course after they returned to California and the singer relapsed on heroin. Without the stability of Niehaus to help anchor her life she got progressively worse.
By May of ’70 she formed the Full Tilt Boogie Band and things were looking up. She assured friends she was drug-free but continued to hit the Southern Comfort like it was Colorado spring water. Much has been written of her six-month plunge towards oblivion and I won’t rehash it here.
Joplin died of a heroin overdose on October 4th, 1970 at the Landmark Hotel in Hollywood Heights at the age of 27. She had been spending a lot of time in the studio recording new material with Full Tilt Boogie for a new album. In 1971 Pearl was posthumously released. The album went on to be the biggest seller of her brief career.
In the years since I can’t hear a Joplin song playing on the radio or a cover of something she did without thinking… What music did we not get to hear? What songs did she carry with her to the grave. What could have been? I can say with confidence that Janis Joplin was the most influential female singer of the sixties.
For those of you that don’t already know… I call my motorcycle… Pearl.
“On stage, I make love to 25,000 different people, then I go home alone.”
– Janis Joplin